Review: ‘I’m Your Woman,’ starring Rachel Brosnahan

December 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rachel Brosnahan and Arinzé Kene in “I’m Your Woman” (Photo by Wilson Webb/Amazon Studios)

“I’m Your Woman”

Directed by Julia Hart

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Northeastern city in the U.S. in the 1970s, the dramatic film “I’m Your Woman” has a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class and the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: After a woman’s criminal husband goes missing and she’s told that her life is in danger, she is forced to go on the run with their adopted baby son.

Culture Audience: “I’m Your Woman” will appeal primarily to people who like slow-burn crime dramas that are predictable but have good acting.

Marsha Stephanie Blake and Rachel Brosnahan in “I’m Your Woman” (Photo Wilson Webb/Amazon Studios)

People who are used to seeing Rachel Brosnahan as the fast-talking and witty stand-up comedian in her Emmy-winning Amazon Prime Video series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” are in for a big surprise when they see Brosnahan in the moody and often slow-paced dramatic film “I’m Your Woman,” also from Amazon Studios. Brosnahan stars in both vehicles, but these two projects—and the characters she portrays in each—are very different from each other.

The brightly colored, upper-middle-class 1960s world inhabited by Brosnahan’s sassy Midge Maisel character in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is in stark contrast to the shadowy and gritty 1970s world of Brosnahan’s terrified Jean character in “I’m Your Woman,” who has to quickly adjust to life as a fugitive from gangsters. It’s a transformation that’s a testament to Brosnahan’s enormous talent, even if “I’m Your Woman” is not as well-written and as compelling as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“I’m Your Woman” (directed by Julia Hart, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan Horowitz) is set in an unnamed Northeastern region of the U.S. in a time period that takes place in the late 1970s. (The movie was actually filmed in Pittsburgh.) In the beginning of the film, Jean seems to be living an easy, pampered life as a suburban housewife. She’s seen lounging in her backyard in a magenta maribou robe, while smoking a cigarette with a glass of wine nearby.

Jean deadpans in a voiceover that sums up her marital life up to that point: “Eddie and Jean met and fell in love. Eddie and Jean got married and bought a house. Eddie and Jean were going to have a kid, but didn’t. So, every morning, Eddie kisses Jean, Eddie leaves the house, and Jean’s alone.”

As a housewife with no children, all Jean has to do is keep the house clean and cook for Eddie. And one of those things she doesn’t do very well. There’s a semi-joke during the movie about how Jean, by her own admission, is a terrible cook. For example, she can’t even make toast without burning it.

Her husband Eddie (played by Bill Heck) is understanding about Jean’s lack of cooking skills. But is this a picture-perfect marriage? Of course not. The first sign that Eddie is into some shady dealings is when he suddenly comes home one day with a baby boy and hands the child to Jean and tells her that the child is now theirs.

Jean doesn’t ask the type of questions that most people would ask. Instead, she tells Eddie, “Is this some kind of sick joke? Because I’m not in the mood.” Eddie replies, “It’s all worked out. He’s our baby.” He then tells Jean that she can name the baby. She names him Harry.

This is the part of the plot where viewers will have to suspend a lot of disbelief, because it’s explained later why Jean immediately wants to become this child’s mother without asking any crucial questions, such as: How did Eddie get the child? Who are the child’s biological parents? Where is the child’s birth certificate?

It becomes quite clear that Jean is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” wife. She knows her husband is a thief and doesn’t really want to know what else he might be up to doing for “work,” as long as he keeps her happy. But it’s revealed later in the story that the one thing in their marriage that has kept Jean very unhappy is that she’s had several miscarriages. She desperately wants to become a mother and has a lot of emotional scars from being unable to carry a baby to childbirth.

The shock of having an “instant” baby takes a while to wear off because Jean is completely unprepared for all the responsibilities of taking care of a newborn baby. It’s a lot harder than she thought it would be. (The role of Harry is played by three different boys: Jameson Charles, Justin Charles and Barrett Shaffer. The movie has the predictable cute baby expressions edited in certain scenes, to make it look like Harry is reacting to something.)

Jean barely has time to adjust to being a new mother when something happens that also drastically alters her life. Very late one night, Jean is woken up by a thug named Jimmy (played by Jarrod DiGiorgi), one of Eddie’s colleagues, who frantically tells her that she has to pack up some things and leave the house with Harry. A shocked and confused Jean asks Jimmy why.

All he tells her is that something happened, she and Harry have to go into hiding, and that Jean has to go with someone named Cal (who is waiting outside the house), and do whatever Cal says. Jimmy also gives Jean $20,000 in cash. Eddie is nowhere in sight, and Jimmy doesn’t seem to know where Eddie is.

Jean only has a light travel bag and Harry with her when she leaves with Cal (played by Arinzé Kene), whose car is parked outside. Cal is a strong, silent type, who also doesn’t know where Eddie is. It’s at this point it becomes very obvious that Eddie is into illegal things that are more serious than stealing.

However, Jean is in deep denial, and she doesn’t understand until Cal literally tells her why she has to go into hiding. Eddie has killed a powerful gangster, Eddie has been a murderer for quite some time, and now he’s gone missing. The cronies of the murdered gangster are out to get revenge on Eddie and his family. Eddie seemed to know that a day might come when he would get into this type of trouble, so he already arranged for a safe house where Jean could go in case she needed to hide.

And how does Cal know Eddie? He tells Jean that he used to work for Eddie. But as the story goes on, there are major signs that Cal and Eddie had some kind of falling out, because Cal gets very tense whenever Eddie’s name is mentioned. Cal also makes an offhand, somewhat snide comment when he says that Eddie must still have friends if Jean was warned to leave and go to a fully furnished safe house.

The safe house is several miles away and it will take more than a day to get there by car. During their road trip, Cal and Jean stay in a motel for one night and try to keep a low profile. However, Harry (who has been crying a lot) seems to have a fever. Against Cal’s objections, Jean insists that they go to a hospital to get medical help for the baby. Hospitals keep records, and Cal doesn’t want any trace of where he and Jean are.

After Harry gets treatment at the hospital, it doesn’t take long for the baby to recover from his fever, so Jean and Cal abruptly leave with the baby, without formally checking out of the hospital. This health scare leaves them exhausted, so during their road trip, they pull over to the side of a road to take a nap.

They are woken up by a racist police officer, who immediately assumes that Cal is up to no good and that Jean might be a kidnapping victim. The cop won’t let Cal talk during the questioning, and he keeps asking Jean if she’s okay, as if expecting her to tell him that this African American man is holding her against her will.

Jean can see where this line of questioning is going, so she lies and says that Cal is her husband and they were just taking a nap because they were worn out from the health scare that the baby had. Jean makes sure to keep the baby’s face covered, so the cop can’t see that the baby is white. The cop lets them go with a warning, while still glaring suspiciously at Cal. As Cal and Jean drive off, she tells him with a certain amount of pride, “I didn’t know I could lie like that.”

At the safe house, Cal tells Jean that there’s a phone upstairs to call only if there is a real emergency. He also gives her a number to call if an emergency happens. Cal says that he can’t watch her 24 hours a day, and he gives Jean strict orders not to talk to anyone except for him while she’s at the safe house. But, of course, you know in a movie like this, rules will be broken, and something is going to go wrong.

Jean begs Cal not to leave because she says she’s never been on her own before. (Jean’s life before she married Eddie is never revealed in this movie.) Cal is fairly even-tempered, but at this moment, he gets irritated with Jean and snaps at her: “I’m doing the best I can!” Then in a calmer voice, as if he regrets losing his temper, he says to Jean: “Let’s do the best we can.” Why is Cal caught up in Eddie’s mess if Cal no longer works for Eddie? That’s explained later in the movie.

Jean breaks the “no talking to anyone else but Cal” rule one evening when the doorbell rings and she answers it. The visitor is a lonely and slightly nosy neighbor named Evelyn (played by Marceline Hugot), an elderly widow who lives two houses down on the same street. Evelyn introduces herself and makes small talk with Jean, who is very guarded and doesn’t want to talk to Evelyn for very long. Jean also lies and says that her name is Mary, but she tells the truth about her baby being named Harry. Before Evelyn walks away, she gives Jean a bouquet of garden flowers as a housewarming gift.

Evelyn, who says she used to know the people who lived in the house, shows up unannounced again at the front door on another evening. Evelyn has brought some homemade lasagna with her. And since Jean is a terrible cook and is longing for a good meal, she lets Evelyn into the house, where they talk some more over their meal at the dining table.

Jean is still wary about telling Evelyn details about herself, but Jean finds herself having a friendly rapport with this neighbor. Evelyn offers to help Jean with anything that she might need. However, Jean still can’t trust Evelyn completely. Jean’s paranoia becomes evident when Evelyn asks to use the restroom upstairs. Jean hears Evelyn walking around upstairs and has panicky thoughts and calls out Evelyn’s name to make sure that nothing suspicious is going on.

At this point in the story, Jean still thinks that Eddie will eventually show up and that their lives might go back to normal. But Jean is in for a rude awakening, when a series of events happen where she has to “toughen up” in order to survive. During the course of the movie (which takes place over an unspecified period of time but it’s definitely less than two weeks), Jean goes from being a sheltered housewife into a street-smart badass. And this evolution is expected and handled in a mostly predictable way, although Brosnahan adds interesting layers of nuance that make the performance worth watching.

What’s less interesting than Brosnahan’s performance is how the pace of the movie sometimes tends to drag. I’m Your Woman” has a running time of two hours, but it could’ve easily been 90 to 110 minutes if some scenes had better editing. And some elements of Jean’s transformation are just a little too convenient for this story.

For example, Jean is supposed to be a wife in deliberate denial about her husband Eddie’s criminal activities that don’t involve stealing. She seems shocked to find out that he was secretly a serial murderer involved in gang activities. However, there’s a scene in the movie before Eddie disappears where he invites some of his goon colleagues over to the house, and everything about them screams “gangsters.”

And based on Jean’s reaction, she’s seen these guys with her husband before. But during the course of the story, Jean’s naïveté suddenly disappears and she’s able to intuitively figure out big secrets in Eddie’s life (that don’t involve murder), just by having a few conversations with certain people. It’s a drastic change that doesn’t always ring true.

It can certainly be left up to interpretation that Jean had these street smarts all along, and her ordeal of being on the run from gangsters helped bring this uncanny intuition out of her. But it all just looks like too sudden, too “on the nose.” One minute, Jean is panicky and can’t think straight. The next minute, Jean is figuring out Eddie’s web of lives as if she’s logical Miss Marple having a big detective “a-ha” moment.

At any rate, the safe house no longer becomes safe, so Cal takes Jean to his family log cabin for protection. It’s here that Jean meets Cal’s wife Teri (played by Marsha Stephanie Blake); Cal and Teri’s son Paul (played by De’Mauri Parks), who’s about 9 or 10 years old; and Cal’s father (played by Frankie Faison), who ends up teaching Jean how to use a gun.

“I’m Your Woman” takes its time to get to some of the action that people might expect to be happening throughout the movie. Instead, there are only sporadic pockets of real action, such as chase scenes or gun fights. Jean and Teri end up forming an unexpected bond with each other, but there are moments where Jean is left wondering how much she can trust Teri or anyone at all.

As for baby Harry, his origins are never really explained. Jean says that Eddie told her that Harry’s young, unwed mother arranged for Eddie to get the child through a private arrangement, which is implied to be an illegal adoption. (Jean never asks to see paperwork.) But considering that Eddie lied about so many things to Jean, who really knows if that’s true? The child could have been kidnapped, but it’s clear that Jean doesn’t care. As far as Jean is concerned, she is now Harry’s mother.

“I’m Your Woman” shares some things in common with writer/director Hart’s 2019 female superhero movie “Fast Color,” which was another slow-paced film that was focused less on fight scenes and more about the interior transformation of a woman gradually coming to terms with and learning to use the power she didn’t really know she had. Jean is not a superhero, but her maternal instinct kicks in fiercely during the story because she begins to understand the type of parental love that puts children above anything else.

The movie’s portrayal of the 1970s is mostly authentic for its production design and costume design (lots of tones in sepia, olive or mustard), except for one scene where people run out of a nightclub where there was a gun shooting, and the entire street looks like a movie set instead of a real Pittsburgh street from the 1970s. And there are some little details that the movie gets right in showing Jean’s maternal instinct to think about the baby before anything else. In one scene, Jean is barefoot in a grocery store because she frantically ran there to get some baby formula for Harry. It’s explained in the movie why she’s barefoot.

Some scenes are a little corny, such as when Jean and Cal are in a nearly-empty diner together soon after they meet, and they end up singing Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” It’s a great song, but very over-used in movies and TV. Other scenes are emotionally resonant, such as when Jean starts to come out of her shell and connect with Teri and her family. And there is some melodrama, such as when Jean has a tearful breakdown in a laundromat.

The movie doesn’t make any heavy-handed commentaries about race relations, but it does show (not tell) how Jean and Teri—two women from very different backgrounds—can form an alliance organically without any bigotry getting in the way of their friendship. Brosnahan and Blake have an authentic rapport with one another that make their scenes together the movie’s definite high points. And it’s refreshing that this movie didn’t resort to catty clichés of the two women bickering before they found a way to get along with each other.

If people hear that “I’m Your Woman” is about a gun-toting mama on the run from gangsters, with her newborn baby in tow, they might be misled into thinking that it’s a fast-paced action flick. It’s not. This is a thoughtfully acted crime drama where the emphasis is on a family’s collateral damage because of a gangster’s misdeeds. The movie shows what happens during one woman’s survival journey during a specific period of time; how she got some unexpected help along the way; and how her life perspective drastically changed.

Amazon Studios released “I’m Your Woman” in select U.S. cinemas on December 4, 2020. Amazon Prime Video premieres the movie on December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘The Grudge’ (2020), starring Andrea Riseborough

January 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Andrea Riseborough in “The Grudge” (2020) (Photo by Allen Fraser)

“The Grudge” (2020)

Directed by Nicolas Pesce

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United States and briefly in Japan, this reimagining (and third version) of the Japanese horror movie “The Grudge” has a predominantly white cast playing mostly American characters, with some representation of Asian, Latino and African American characters.

Culture Clash: A supernatural ghost story, the main plot involves the conflict between living humans and the evil spirits that cause murder and mayhem. A minor subtext is the movie characters’ varying levels of superstitions and beliefs in the paranormal.

Culture Audience: “The Grudge” will appeal primarily to horror fans who like scary stories to stick to a certain formula and don’t mind if a movie takes long stretches to build suspense.

Andrea Riseborough in “The Grudge” (2020) (Photo by Allen Fraser)

A lot has changed in the horror-movie landscape since Japanese filmmaker Takashi Shimizu wrote and directed his classic 2002 film “Ju-on: The Grudge.” Shimizu directed Hollywood versions that were a remake (2004’s smash hit “The Grudge”) and an inferior sequel (2006’s “The Grudge 2”). While the aforementioned movies took place primarily in Japan, and the first two Hollywood versions were rated PG-13, the 2020 Hollywood version of “The Grudge” (with Nicolas Pesce as writer/director) takes place almost entirely in the United States and is rated R.  If you’re wondering why this movie is rated R instead of PG-13, it’s because the death scenes are bloodier and gorier. (Don’t watch this movie if it’s too disturbing for you to see a child being murdered.) But having more graphically violent killings doesn’t necessarily make a horror movie better or scarier.

Movie audiences now have much higher standards than when the first “Grudge” movies were released. Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele, who is the reigning king of writing and directing horror films, has been offering up biting social commentaries in his movies that go beyond the usual horror tropes of murdered people and good versus evil. “The Grudge” is Pesce’s third feature film, and he has some way to go before he can reach the level of storytelling talent shown by Peele and other horror filmmakers such as Ari Aster and Jennifer Kent, who all began making movies around the same time as Pesce. Peele’s blockbuster success indicates there’s a huge appetite for R-rated, original horror movies that do something a little different than expected. Sam Raimi (director of the first three “Spider-Man” movies, “Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell”) is a producer of all of the Hollywood versions of “The Grudge,” so it’s disappointing that he’s behind a horror movie as boring as this one.

As it stands, the 2020 reimagining of “The Grudge” breaks no new ground whatsoever. The movie takes place from 2004 to 2006, which is how outdated the horror writing seems to be for this film. In between long stretches of the movie’s under-written characters looking morose, shocked or confused, there are predictable and not-very-frightening jump scares. Pesce also has a thing for showing rotting, decaying or burned flesh with flies buzzing around (even in the butcher section of a grocery store), since those images show up numerous times in the movie. The cinematography from Zack Galler is gloomy and foreboding in all the right places, but there’s so much “been there, done that” to the film that almost nothing in this movie feels original.

You don’t have to see the previous “Grudge” movies to know that this is yet another horror film about an evil spirit taking over a home, and the body count starts to increase when the spirit goes on a vengeful murder spree. “The Grudge” is one of many horror film franchises that have used this trope, including “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” “The Ring,” “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”/”Annabelle” movies. If you’ve seen any of these films, you can know what to expect from the 2020 version of “The Grudge.”

Switching the location from Japan to the United States (in the fictional suburb of Cross River, Pennsylvania) does little to make the 2020 version of “The Grudge” more interesting. In fact, it makes the movie even more generic than the previous “Grudge” movies (which took place in Tokyo in the 2004 film and Tokyo and Chicago in the 2006 sequel), because Cross River is indistinguishable from the many other similar, nondescript American suburbs that are the locations of countless other horror films. Pesce should be commended for not following the horror-movie cliché of having a female protagonist who’s a nubile woman in her late teens or 20s with not much adult life experience. However, Andrea Riseborough’s Detective Muldoon character (a police officer who’s in her 30s) is so hollow and underdeveloped that Riseborough’s considerable acting talent is wasted.

At the beginning of the film, it’s 2006, and Muldoon (Pesce didn’t give her or any of the other police officers a first name) is grieving the loss of her husband, who died of cancer three months before. She and her pre-adolescent son move to Cross River to get a fresh start. Immediately upon arriving in Cross River, Muldoon is intrigued by a case from 2004, in which a Cross River woman named Fiona Landers (played by Tara Westwood) murdered her husband Sam (played by David Lawrence Brown) and their underage daughter Melinda (played by Zoe Fish) in their home before committing suicide. In the film’s opening scene, Fiona is seen in Tokyo talking in a panic on the phone, because she’s clearly spooked by something, and she says she can’t wait to come home to the United States. (And there you have the thread between the previous “Grudge” movies and this one.)

It’s also obvious from this script with too many plot holes that Pesce would have benefited from better research of real-life police work. Muldoon’s partner Detective Goodman (played by Demián Bichir) was one of the two detectives who arrived at the Landers crime scene and assigned to investigate the case (remember, this is fairly small city), but he says that he was too scared and superstitious to ever go inside the house where the murder took place. You don’t have to be a cop expert to know that kind of incompetent investigator wouldn’t last long as a homicide detective. Muldoon, however, doesn’t bat an eye when Goodman tells her that he never went inside the crime scene. It’s explained later in the movie why Goodman was intuitive enough to know that if he went in the house, he might be “cursed,” but it’s a shaky explanation that does little to bolster the very thin plot.

Meanwhile, Pesce tries to fill out the story by inserting some unnecessary subplots that are shown as flashbacks to what happened to the people who lived in the house after the murders. A married couple in the film—Peter and Nina Spencer (played by John Cho and Betty Gilpin)—also have a connection to the house. Peter and Nina have a real-estate business together, and they’re the first people to buy and move into the house after the murders. Peter must be the dumbest real-estate agent in Pennsylvania, because he’s unaware of the recent murder-suicide tragedy at the house, which would undoubtedly be one of the first things a real-estate agent would know in buying or selling property.

When he shows up at the house to close the deal, he sees a sad, sick-looking girl with no parents around, and she starts bleeding from the nose, so Peter goes in the house and helps stop her nosebleed. Of course, the viewers already know who this girl and her parents are. Peter goes in the house and calls her father (because we’re supposed to believe that dead people can do real-estate deals to sell the house they were murdered in), gets the father’s voice mail (of course), expresses confusion over why the father missed the appointment, and tells him that his daughter has a nosebleed but that she should be just fine. (Really?)

Peter and Nina (who’s pregnant) have recently found out that their unborn child will likely be born with a crippling disease, and Nina has to decide whether or not to continue with the pregnancy. There seems to be no other reason to put that medical drama in the story other than to make Peter and Nina a more sympathetic and tragic couple, considering what happens to them later in the movie. (This movie’s trailer pretty much gave away that things do not end well for Peter and Nina.)

Another pair of unlucky residents of the house are William and Faith Matheson (played by Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye), a couple who’ve been married for 50 years. Faith has a terminal disease, which has gotten worse after they moved into the house in 2005. A distraught William has consulted with euthanasia specialist Lorna Moody (played by Jacki Weaver) to find out if Lorna can use her services on Faith. When Lorna meets her, Faith is definitely acting crazy, because she says likes to play peekaboo with her imaginary friend Melinda. It’s no surprise that Lorna quickly decides that Faith is mentally unfit to consent to euthanasia. You can easily guess where this subplot goes.

Meanwhile, as Muldoon becomes more obsessed with the Landers murder case, she starts seeing menacing ghosts that look exactly like the dead Landers family. She also finds out that Goodman’s former cop partner Detective Wilson (played by William Sadler), who investigated the case with Goodman, has since been put in in a psychiatric institution. Naturally, she tracks him down and interviews him. And because she already decided to enter the empty house to investigate this closed case on her own, we all know what that means.

One of the biggest complaints that movie fans have about the industry is that there are too many unnecessary remakes and reboots. Unfortunately, the 2020 version of “The Grudge” is an example of a remake that should not have attempted a comeback.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Screen Gems released “The Grudge” in U.S. cinemas on January 3, 2020.